It is impossible to imagine any American saying what Trump is reported — reported, and now verified — to have said about soldiers killed in France in World War I, or while attending the grave of General Kelly’s son, or saying what he did about John McCain in 2016, questioning why we considered the late senator a war hero.
Who among us would say such monstrous things about men and women who have died or been wounded in the line of duty?
It was Trump’s reported comments about the Vietnam War and how he considered those who went into combat there to be “suckers” that jumped out at me. Trump was of age to have been drafted into that war — the U.S. draft ended in 1973, the war in 1975 — but, of course, he received four deferments, three for college and one for “bone spurs,” and never came close to military service. I am several years younger than Trump and, though I had a low number in the Selective Service lottery of 1972, I was lucky not to be called; the war — and the draft — was winding down by then.
And there has been no draft since, and so we have had two generations, perhaps three now, who have been so lucky: No mandatory service, no time away from college or careers or loved ones, no danger of being shot or maimed. We went to an all-volunteer military and yet, since Vietnam, have been engaged in two long wars and several major military operations. “We support our troops” became a bumper sticker during the First Gulf War of 1991, and it has remained a constant American theme: “We might not volunteer, and no one we know serves in the military, but we support our troops.”
The sentiment is sincere, but limited. We respect those who serve but the vast majority of Americans want nothing to do with the military — and for many reasons: Some hate war and the military-industrial complex; some are too busy making money to take time away from that endeavor for service to the country; some just aren’t inclined to volunteer (for anything), and some never even consider the idea. Most are never even asked to.
I was lucky to avoid Vietnam. I remember thinking college deferments were wrong: Why should guys avoid the draft just because they were in college? I thought a real draft meant everybody went. In World War I, the Congress wrote the law to make sure the burden was spread throughout the country’s social classes — the farmer’s son would be drafted along with the Princeton grad. But that ideal disappeared during Vietnam, and soon, rather than be pestered by angry constituents who did not want their sons’ asses being shot, the politicians in Washington did away with the draft.
And soon a great divide developed between those who serve and those who don’t, a gap that I really had not paid attention to until the Iraq War.
“The main reason that the war remains so remote from the lives of middle-class Americans is the absence of a military draft,” wrote Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate, in an online essay during the war. “This is a subject that no one seems to want to talk about. Supporters of the war definitely do not want to talk about it. President Bush and Vice President Cheney react angrily to any suggestion that a draft might be needed, because they know that the prospect of conscription would make their decision to invade Iraq even more unpopular. Having lived through Vietnam and shirked the draft themselves, they understand that if people anywhere near their own station in life were forced to fight, any remaining support for wars of arguable necessity would dry up and blow away.”
I wrote columns on this topic years ago, and one more in 2018 after John McCain died. I suggested then — and again here today — that we close the divide between those who serve and those who don’t with two years of national public service — with a choice of civic, military or foreign service — for every American once he or she reaches the age of 18, with deferment optional until the age of 21, when service becomes mandatory. We could name the program the John McCain Selective Public Service. After this horrible experience with Trump — denigrating government and public service, promoting “America First,” calling those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for country “suckers” and “losers” — we need a program like this; we need to restore belief in the common good and service to country.